From the moment Broadway and television star Matthew Morrison, as a kid, saw Gene Kelly on the silver screen, he knew what he wanted to do with his life.
“You’re either an Astaire guy or a Gene Kelly person. ... Gene Kelly was the proletariat, the working man," Morrison explains. "He was just such a man when he was dancing, and that’s what I wanted to emulate."
The triple threat is adding a third act to his already thriving career with a series of solo concert engagements around the world, including one at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica.
For Morrison, it’s a chance to carry the torch of Kelly’s legacy into a more intimate and personal setting. While most solo Broadway concert gigs feature a performer singing their heart out on a stool, Morrison brings his signature hoofing into the act. “A big part of my show is dance,” he says.
Morrison rose to fame as the affable, inspiring choir teacher Will Schuester on Fox’s Glee, but theater and live performance have always been his first loves. “It’s like oxygen for me,” he says. Before and after the hit musical television show, Morrison made a career on the Broadway stage – originating the roles of Link Larkin in Hairspray and Fabrizio Naccarelli in The Light in the Piazza, and portraying the hunky, morally conflicted Lieutenant Cable in the Lincoln Center revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific. Featuring songs from these career highlights, as well as many other jazz and Broadway standards, Morrison's show tells the actor's story through song (and dance). “My career is so diverse because I am not just a TV actor or a film actor or a Broadway actor,” he explains.
From South Pacific ballads to an eight-minute song-and-dance medley inspired by Hairspray, Morrison will span the gamut of his career in a mixture of song and dance accompanied by a jazz band (in other venues he’s joined by a symphony orchestra). “Honestly, the biggest appeal for me is being myself. Whenever I do other shows, I’m always playing a character,” he says. “I get to be myself and tell my stories. It’s just a real journey, and it’s my journey, so that’s something I like to share with people.”
The Broadway veteran likens the process of constructing his solo concert to the work of a stand-up comedian, from deciding on a concept for the arc of the show to perfecting the final version. “Like a stand-up comic, you’re constantly working your show, figuring out what works, what doesn’t, throw out this joke, add this one,” he says. “So it’s been a work in progress over the past year, really trying to hone it in.”
Morrison says he aims to create a show with a flexible and diverse range, working in up-tempo songs and never letting it sink under the weight of too many ballads. When it comes to choosing the songs themselves, he says he generally just selects his favorite and then adjusts the set list order to create a fluid performance. Many of the musicals he’s showcasing, including South Pacific and The Light in the Piazza, feature multiple solo numbers. In that case, Morrison says he selects the song that best suits his voice, rather than his favorite.
But there’s one song he can’t shake: My Fair Lady’s “On the Street Where You Live” has been his favorite song most of his life, growing and shifting with him. “That song is one of the first songs I ever sang at school, it’s the song that’s followed me my whole career,” he says. “I’ve sang it at almost every audition I’ve ever done. I booked Glee with that song. And the song has changed for me over the years. It used to be the young guy yearning ... but now that I’m married, it’s become more like I’ve gone through the journey, and I will always remain here for you, being your rock.”
Morrison also tries to include songs or moments in his set that speak to each city where he’s performing. He hasn’t settled on what that will be for Los Angeles yet, but says it’s an issue of narrowing it down. His Los Angeles engagement is a homecoming of sorts. The actor grew up in Orange County, attending the renowned Orange County High School of the Arts, and he still leads a bicoastal life, maintaining a home in sunny L.A. “I just love being home here,” he says. “My home here really feels like a home. New York, it’s all apartment living, so it’s very tight quarters. It’s nice to actually walk around and have a nice big kitchen to cook in.”
While he’s thrilled to be back in his California home and in proximity to favorite restaurants and Runyon Canyon, Morrison is most excited to be able to do a live show that friends and family can attend: “It’s rare that I get to come back to Los Angeles. ... A lot of friends are going to be able to see what I’ve been doing with my life for the past couple years.”
Morrison also has committed to giving back to his hometown. He regularly visits high schools and college campuses to teach master classes and answer students’ questions, particularly at his alma mater in Orange County. He is part of a group using the Orange County High School of the Arts as a model to open similar schools in the San Gabriel Valley and San Diego County. Morrison says they hope to expand to schools nationwide.
“I would not be where I am today if it wasn’t for the high level, high quality of teaching and learning that I got at that school,” he says. “I owe so much of my success to that school that I want to pay it forward and continue to reach out to the younger generation.” He fondly recalls when Broadway performer Susan Egan (she originated Belle in Disney’s theatrical production of Beauty and the Beast) came to his high school, and he got to dance with her. Morrison says he wants to pass along that experience to the next generation of performers and the reminder that at one time he was just like them, learning from Broadway greats and aspiring to be one. “I’m Mr. Schuester,” he jokes, “I’ve gotta keep the legend alive.”
Not only has Glee brought in a youthful audience to Morrison’s solo shows, but in general it has sparked a resurgence of interest in the Broadway musical. Thanks to cultural phenomenons such as Glee and Hamilton, musical theater is no longer languishing in the shadows as a niche interest. Morrison says he hasn’t noticed it from the inside of the process (“It’s the same experience being a performer”), but that box office numbers and the general interest in musicals has increased. “It’s a great time for Broadway,” he says, “but, on the inside, I feel like it’s still the same tight-knit, great community.”
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Morrison hopes his concerts help perpetuate interest in both musical theater and the Great American Songbook. “It was the height of storytelling,” he says. “Today with music, a lot of people are just trying to come up with a cool beat. ... We’ve lost that true songwriting in a lot of ways. Back then, it was so simple. You take music and lyrics, and you tell a story, and that was the basis of everything.”
When your concert is about telling your life story, it’s helpful to have a set list that does it for you. “It’s so easy to sing these songs because I really fall into the acting of them,” he says. “They’re so easy to act because they’re really just great stories. When I hear a standard, I almost don’t want the song to end because I just want the story to keep going.”
When it’s Morrison telling the story, it’s hard not to feel the same way.
Matthew Morrison at the Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica; Sat., Jan. 14, 7:30 p.m.; $75-$115. thebroadstage.com.